Monday, 13 February 2012

Slippages in the Universal: Speculative Realism 1

1. Slippages in the Universal: Reza Negarestani and the revolution of the open universe.



The work of Reza Negarestani situates itself firmly within what he calls “the revolution by and according to the open universe”[1] and this question of the universe is both central and problematic for Negarestani. It is problematic in the way in that this concept of the open universe manifests itself under many different (although admittedly related) guises throughout his work; and that in each of these different guises there is a certain amount of slippage in the concept, which drives, motivates and supports the work as a whole. Thus, through close reading and analysis of the instances and function of such slippages, it is possible to open up Negarestani’s work to both interpretation and critique, and ultimately to resituate both the work as a whole and also arguments surrounding the wider field of so-called speculative realism and its place in philosophical discourse.[2]


A perfect example of the sort of slippage symptomatic of Negarestani’s work can be found in the closing remarks of his paper titled Globe of Revolution where he writes: “The basic attribute of the universal synthesis is modal and relational freedom insofar as the first expression of universal openness – viz. the active renegotiation of frontiers of the universal continuum – takes shape between regional spheres.”[3] Without examining the content of this passage too closely it is possible to identify the slippage occurring in the function of ‘universal’ here. Negarestani subtly moves from an almost epistemological concept of ‘universal synthesis’ to the ontological idea of the ‘universal continuum’ through the interlocutor of ‘universal openness.’ In more mundane terms this is a movement between the philosophical idea of the universal (as opposed to particulars) to the universe the cosmic sense of the entirety of stars, planets, black holes, dark matter, etc. This slippage per se is not necessarily a problem for Negarestani, as the unity of the universal is an important element of his philosophy, as he later elaborates: “the abyssal, unbound and continuous relation of the universe to itself – i.e., the open universal continuum”[4] which highlights the totality and unity of the universe and the universal within his thought. The unbound relation of the universe to itself is the fundamental insight of Negarestani’s thought, as highlighted by its almost mantra like repetition throughout his texts, and it is upon this relation that his entire speculative system is constructed. It is the force of this insight which motivates each of his critiques against what he terms the myopic and axiomatic local horizons of capitalism, the subject, set theory, the solar economy, etc.; as the particulars of each must be exploded in the face of the abyssal nature of the universe. However, the totality of the different manifestations of the universal within this system is not as unified as they might appear. This is self-evident as otherwise there would be no need to make the distinction between them, and the distinction between ‘universal synthesis’ and the ‘universal continuum’ is vital for much of the structure of Negarestani’s system and the critiques he makes through this system. Just as the strength of his arguments are based upon the vacillation between different manifestations of the universal in his system, so can this slippage be turned against Negarestani and expose tensions within the his work which may allow a critique or realignment of the entire speculative project.


The two important manifestations of the universal in Negarestani are the universal continuum, as the totality, unity and continuity of the universe, and the universal synthesis as the method of movement from any particular site within this universe towards the openness of this totality – that is the possibility of a synthetic movement from particulars to the universal. The project of geophilosophical realism is the realisation that any particular set of circumstances within the universe, such as subjective engagement with the world or the capitalist conception of the affordability of the planet, are merely regionalised local horizons which in their fundamentally limited nature cannot express the infinite totality of the universe. Thus, the realist or speculative project must find a way to move from this limited and particular local horizon to the totality of the universal (continuum). As Negarestani phrases it: “Geophilosophical realism thus understands synthesis or the relation of a regional horizon to the open in no terms other than the unrestricted and abyssal reflexivity of the universe and its universal synthesis.”[5]


Here is the beginning of the slippage as the (necessarily) limited regional fields of knowledge and experience must respectively contain both the universal and also be part of the universe. Geophilosophy collapses the fact that as part of the universe each experience is part of the relation of the universe to itself into the fact that knowledge must also reach into the universality of reason for its own understanding. The Kantian nature of such phraseology may serve as a premonition of the direction of this line of argumentation. Before this line is followed it is necessary to further examine and explicate Negarestani’s dual conceptions of the universal continuum and universal synthesis, and in doing so identify several other important elements such as the abyss, the open, the cut and trauma.


As stated above the universal continuum is the open and unbound relationship of the universe to itself, which is the fundamental insight and foundation of Negarestani’s thought. This open universe appears via the decentralisation of humanity through modern science. Gabriel Catran identifies the trajectory of Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein and Heisenberg as the path that has fundamentally usurped humanity from the centre of the universe. Firstly Galileo shows mathematics to be a formal ontology determined by the entanglement of mathematics with existence. Next Copernicus stands in for the decentralisation of humanity primarily within the solar system. But who, for Catran, also encompasses Darwin and Freud who show that man is not unique neither within the animal kingdom or even his own mind. This expansion of the term Copernican curiously excludes Kant, who identified the revolution of the Critique of Pure Reason as Copernican. This is because the speculative realists have a strange relationship to Kant, which will be examined in more depth later. Thirdly, Newtonian mechanics shows the unity of nature; and finally Einstein and then Heisenberg expand nature to encompass and negate both transcendence and the phenomenological consistency of nature.[6] Once the primacy of humanity has been negated the question of the universe becomes the fundamental question of metaphysics.


The path traced by Catran, and followed by Negarestani, commences with the elevation of mathematics to the level of formal ontology. However, this is not necessarily clear-cut, as the debates concerning mathematics and analytic philosophy throughout the twentieth century proved. The problems raised by the Russell Paradox, Cantor’s continuum paradox and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem seem fatal to mathematics based upon set theory. This is why Negarestani turns toward the works of Columbian mathematician Fernando Zalamela and American logician and philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce. The later is particularly important to Negarestani, as it is Pierce who defines the nature of the universal continuum in terms of a “supermultitudinous generic collection”[7] which means that individual elements within the continuum cannot be distinct from either each other or from the continuum as a whole. Through mobilising the theory of the universal continuum and the branch of mathematics called category theory, Negarestani escapes from the traditional problems of set theory and analytic philosophy to once again unite mathematics and the universe in the universal continuum. The way in which this has consequences for the part/whole relationship of particular places and instances of action within the universe is drawn out when Negarestani writes: “the transition from the universal to regional fields (of individuals, particulars, etc.) and conversely from local interiorised horizons to exteriority takes place in terms of a truly generic – that is supermultitudinous – continuum.”[8] As continuous parts of the universe particulars and individuals are already in a relationship with the universal no matter what the limitations of their specific regional horizon.


This also elucidates terms such as ‘open’, ‘abyssal’, ‘myopia’ and ‘regional or local horizons’ and their place within this speculative system. Once humanity has been usurped from its perch at the centre of the universe, and that universe has also been radically cast in into the infinity and infinitesimality of the universal continuum, then any experience or occurrence is only a very limited section of that universe, which does not represent the infinite nature and possibilities of the universe. On one hand the universe continuously opens up into the universal continuum and is thus abyssal in the fact that there is no foundation upon which either it being or knowledge thereof can be based; and on the other, each experience is always limited by its own horizon in the face of the radical openness of the continuum, and thus always incomplete, local, regional and hence ‘myopic’ in scope. This abyssal gap between the openness of the universal continuum and the myopic nature of all regional horizons raises the question of how is it possible to engage with the universe in the face of its openness? It is this question that leads to the concept of universal synthesis, but before that can be discussed it is necessary to look at the nature and consequences of being in the open universe.


Negarestani characterises the regionalisation of various local horizons in terms of the traumatic cut. The nature of regional horizons covers a lot of ground for Negarestani (indeed it even includes the concept of ground itself), he describes it as “a wide range covering the cerebral horizon of the human, the interiorised domain of the organism, territorial regions, states and the body of the Earth itself”.[9] The concept of the regional horizon can thus include any set of particulars selected to stand out within or against the universe. Thus it appears that anything including actual objects - such as cups, tables, planets, stars or galaxies – and abstract concepts or collections – states, armies, the subject, and artistic or political movements and ideas, etc. – can all be considered as regional horizons of one form or another. This gives an amazing flexibility to Negarestani’s thought; however, it is the regional horizon of the individual thinking organism, i.e., the subject, with which he is most concerned.


Part Two: Trauma and Trancendence


Part Three: The Sublime as Exogenic Trauma


Part Four: The Moral Law as Endogenic Trauma


Part Five: Reading Kant Backwards: Autonomy, causality and the absolute.


Part Six: From Correlationism to Theology


Part Seven: Traces of Spectres


Part Eight: The Structure of Trace-écart as a new form of sensibility


Part Nine: The Space of the Absolute


Part Ten: The Challenge of Facticity and the Gaps of the Absolute



[1] R. Negarestani, Globe of Revolution: An afterthought on geophilosophical realism. p. 1.

[2] This is not to ignore the heterogeneity of speculative realism, and each form thereof will be addressed as necessary without the need to pass definitive or prejudicial judgement on any set of or specific work/s.

[3] R. Negarestani, Globe of Revolution. p. 30.

[4] R. Negarestani, Globe of Revolution. p. 31.

[5] R. Negarestani, Globe of Revolution. p. 2.

[6] G. Catran, T. Adkins (trans.), ‘Outland Empire: Prolegomena to Speculative Absolutism’, in L. Bryant et al, The Speculative Turn: Continental materialism and realism. (Melbourne: re.press, 2011). p. 338.

[7] R. Negarestani, Globe of Revolution. p. 6.

[8] R. Negarestani, Globe of Revolution. p. 6.

[9] R. Negarestani, Globe of Revolution. p. 2.

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